Family Dinner Boycott - How Bad?

Filed under: Opinions

Sure she threw me a bone, but when is everyone else coming to the table? Image:

My friend practically whispered it in my ear: We don't have dinner together anymore.

"Really?" I asked, concerned. "Is your husband working late or something?" No no, she said, leaning in. She and her husband eat together. The kids eat separately. First. She had done Family Dinner for almost a year now but lately... she's just too beat. She's given up.

I thought for a minute about the typical family dinner time-line...
5:30pm: Mommy valiantly cooks a nutritious and colorful meal.
6:00 Mommy calls family to table
6:01 - 6:20 Family responds, individually and as a group "in a minute" in one-minute increments.
6:02, 6:05, 6:07, 6:11, 6:14: Mommy pleads....6:20 Family finally gathers, then expresses displeasure at meal, and details for Mommy exactly what they wish was for dinner (4 separate meals).
6:30 Children complain that food is too cold to eat.
6:35 - 6: 41 Husband snarfs dinner without tasting. Kids, having eaten 3 bites, in unison: "Can we have dessert?"
6:45 Mommy eats cold meal.

Hmm. What is it we're supposed to love about this again? Or right, it's good for us! But, ah, is it okay to take a break a few times a week? I called up Mommy Advisor Christine Palumbo, R.D., a nutritionist in private practice in a Chicago suburb who is an adjunct faculty member at Benedictine University to find out How Bad it is to sometimes skip Family Dinner...

"Ah, The Family Meal," Palumbo says, with light reverie. "We all have visions of mom and dad and 2.3 children sitting and having this lovely family meal." Yes, exactly! Why not my family? "We think everyone else is having this calm perfect dinner. In reality, it's more like a real life experience of the show Survivor. You're trying to get everyone fed without too much crying and too much on the floor." Yes, exactly!

Family dinner is a good idea, Palumbo confirms. It is good for your family and there's reams of evidence that backs up this idea. "Studies show when families eat together, the children have better academic scores. It is an opportunity to hear about each others days. It is worth the effort and something to aspire to. But nobody has the perfect, quiet, family dinner." So how can we make family dinner less hysterical and more... fun?

Pre-feed the hungry ones. Kids under 7 are starving by 5pm, so Palumbo says, don't make them "wait for dinner, honey." A friend taught me this great trick: Steam some veggies with a little butter or honey (for carrots) and have 'em ready for that 5pm starving rush to the kitchen. By taking the edge off their hunger with something healthy, it takes the pressure off to make sure they eat an amazing, perfect, well-rounded meal.

Talk flavorful, colorful, and fun food, not "healthy food." "Don't mention the food's nutritional value, talk about how delicious and crunchy and yummy in your tummy the food is," Palumbo says. Nothing turns kids off faster than hearing something is good for you.

Try quicker dinners. You'll feel less rejected if you haven't spent two hours preparing something special. For family dinners, keep it simple.

Enlist Daddy's help. "If the kids take off and you're eating dinner alone, warm it up and ask Daddy to join you," says Palumbo. "Use those few minutes to catch up with each other."

So... how bad is it to skip the ol' family dinner now and again? You have to remember, Palumbo says, "It's not like old reruns from the 60s and 70s. A pleasant family meal is something to work toward and not give up on. Parents who never enjoy a family dinner are missing out on the pleasure of eating as a family and the emotional support, and academic success, and treasured memories around the dinner table." That said, Palumbo says, "You have to keep your sanity too! So I don't disagree with the idea of having a few nights off a week."

Sabrina Weill is editor-in-chief of

Have you had a less-than-perfect parenting moment and you're wondering, "How bad"? Send it to and it could get addressed in this column...

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.